Plight of the broken link

Plight of the broken link

The internet is an endlessly rich world of sites, pages and posts – until it all ends with a click and a “404 not found” error message … This phenomenon, usually caused by “link rot”, is far more than just an occasional annoyance to individual users.

I’m a proud geek and simply have to draw attention to the plight of the broken link; as highlighted in the article: The growing problem of Internet “link rot” and best practices for media and online publishers, written by Leighton Walter – research editor at the Journalist’s Resource *.

He explains that, while it was conceived in the 1960s, the hyperlink came into its own with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) protocol – a standardised system for tagging text files to achieve font, colour, graphic and hyperlink effects on the World Wide Web (www) – in 1991. There’s no doubt that the first broken link soon followed …

On the surface, the problem is simple: A once-working Universal Resource Locator (URL) – a webpage’s address – is now a goner. The root cause can be any number of things: content could have been renamed, moved or deleted, or an entire site could have evaporated.

In its own way, the web is a very literal-minded creature and all it takes is a single-character change in a URL to break a link.

A 2014 Harvard Law School study looks at the legal implications of internet link decay and finds reasons for alarm. The authors, Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Lessig, determined that approximately 50 percent of the URLs in US Supreme Court’s opinions no longer link to the original information.

They also found that, in a selection of legal journals published between 1999 and 2011, more than 70 percent of the links no longer functioned as intended.

The scholars write: “As websites evolve, not all third parties will have a sufficient interest in preserving the links that provide backwards compatibility to those who relied upon those links. The author of the cited source may decide the argument in the source was mistaken and take it down.

“The website owner may decide to abandon one mode of organising material for another, or the organisation providing the source material may change its views and ‘update’ the original source to reflect its evolving views.

“In each case, the citing paper is vulnerable to footnotes that no longer support its claims. This vulnerability threatens the integrity of the resulting scholarship.”

To address some of these issues, academic journals are adopting use of digital object identifiers (DOIs), which provide both persistence and traceability, but, as Zittrain, Albert and Lessig point out, many people who produce content for the web are likely to be “indifferent to the problems of posterity”.

The scholars’ solution, supported by a broad coalition of university libraries, is – a service that takes a snapshot of a URL’s content and returns a permanent link (known as a permalink) that users employ rather than the original link.

This subject still has a lot more to offer, however, as companies and individuals do have various other options to eliminate the weak link that is “link rot”, and can maximise their site’s long-term utility to users … More on those in future Sound Offs.

* Based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy – in the United States – the Journalist’s Resource project examines news topics through a research lens. Last year, the American Library Association named it one of the best free reference websites.

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